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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Chicken and gags situation at this baseball induction ceremony

An irreverent nonprofit group that celebrates the game holds its annual awards, honoring the likes of the San Diego mascot and Dodgers great Maury Wills among others.

July 20, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • The famous San Diego Chicken poses for a picture with a young fan during a game between the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals on May 23.
The famous San Diego Chicken poses for a picture with a young fan during a… (Christopher Hanewinckel…)

I was listening to the San Diego Chicken give a speech the other day, and he raised some excellent points about sports and the state of the nation, such that it is.

The chicken sounded good, especially considering that he had just flown in that morning. Describing himself as the "Minnie Minoso of mascots," he talked about his five decades in the game, and how he thought baseball has the greatest sense of humor of any sport.

"Baseball is the only sport where you can still hear the squeal of children in the stands," he went on to say, drawing more knowing nods.

After all these years, I still get a charge when I first spot the San Diego Chicken — that same visceral reaction you get when you see a very pregnant woman walking down the sidewalk — her innie now an outtie. You poke whoever's next to you — "Hey, look!" — as if you're about to witness a miracle, pay attention.

I don't know that this overstuffed bird quite qualifies as a miracle, but he is a blessing, a gift and — when turned slowly over a spit — one of the tastiest summer meals you could ever hope for.

Sorry, I can be serious for only so long, one of the life tricks you learn from guys like Ted Giannoulas and Bob Uecker, Nuke LaLoosh and Tommy Lasorda.

In sort of a Lasorda moment, halfway through Giannoulas' speech I start hallucinating about chicken wings, which happens to me at almost every speech, not just those given by poultry. Food fantasies are my go-to place, my mental B-roll. It would be the same fantasy if Nelson Mandela were speaking, or Michelle Bachmann. Maybe even more so.

Suddenly, the chicken is gone and there's another speaker.

"Essentially, the United States is the greatest poem," says writer Jean Hastings Ardell, quoting Walt Whitman as she expands on the rich language of sports.

Baseball is also a poem, of course. But, mercifully, it's also full of laughs and one-liners.

They honored all this Sunday — the poetry and the punch lines — at the Baseball Reliquary's "Induction Day" ceremony. Basically, it's a salute to baseball put together by fans who at one point started ringing cowbells, a tradition we'll get to in a moment.

I don't even know what a reliquary is — sounds like a place priests stash their cigarettes. But if you're starting to get the idea that this organization is for you, let me warn you that its members are almost hopelessly irreverent, literate and sanguine.

I know, right? Who'd expect all that from a bunch of die-hard baseball fans? And who'd expect me to use a word like sanguine?

But that's this group, full of mirth and a love for the game.

They start their meeting with the national anthem, played on a lone electric guitar. After an amp malfunction, filmmaker/guitarist Jon Leonoudakis apologizes and starts over.

"Let's play two," some wise guy woofs.

That done, they break into a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," which should begin every meeting in America, not just Seussian extravaganzas like this one.

Here's the bio on the under-the-radar Baseball Reliquary: It's a nonprofit group that celebrates the game with exhibitions and programs throughout the year. Almost everything is free and open to the public.

Atmospherically, the Pasadena-based group is what you'd get if you crossed a meeting of hard-core preservationists with the Royal Order of Raccoons. Ralph Kramden should preside.

Their annual Academy Awards is this "Shrine of the Eternals" induction, held last Sunday, drawing 200 mixed-up souls to the Pasadena Central Library.

In addition to the Chicken, they are honoring Dodgers great Maury Wills, one-armed former outfielder Pete Gray (Nelson Gary Jr. accepting) and Paul Dickson, author of many things, including his wonderful baseball dictionary.

In some sort of apparent screwup, they also give me a small award, something called "The Hilda," named for renowned Brooklyn nutcase Hilda Chester.

Chester is probably the most famous Dodgers fan of all time, best known for the racket she raised with frying pans and cowbells at Ebbets Field, but also for allegedly lying in court in defense of her hero, fellow nutcase Leo Durocher, after the manager went on trial for pummeling a fan with brass knuckles.

And you thought baseball was purer back then?

In any (nut)case, the shrine ceremony is a hoot, not just for its appreciation for baseball's funny bone, but for its recognition of people like Wills, who at almost 80 still looks lean and cat-like enough to swipe 100 bases — an ageless cheetah.

The former shortstop brought down the house with his stories of how he spent eight years in the minors and overcame a debilitating fear of the curveball — switch-hitting saved his career.

"This [ceremony] spanned the gamut of the baseball experience, from the humorous and irreverent to the scholarly and sublime," says the group's founder, Terry Cannon, when it is over. "I like to think that the annual ceremony, in some ways, represents the most special and enduring qualities of baseball."

Right. Now where'd you stash that chicken?

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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